Obscure Advent Recommendation #3: Family Man

Watch The Family Man | Prime Video

This one is for my dad, who loves to watch this movie each year on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Family Man is a sweet and under-appreciated movie from 2000 starring Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni. You can watch the trailer, but the basic premise is: Jack is a highly successful businessman, basically decent if superficial, living the high life until an unthinking moment of heroism on Christmas Eve launches him into a “glimpse” — a vision of what life might have been if he had passed up a career opportunity as a young man to marry his first love. Waking up as a family man in the New Jersey suburbs that Christmas morning, Jack initially panics and tries to escape the glimpse, but gradually settles into the alternate world. But, given the choice, would he choose to stay? And can he?

If it sounds a bit like It’s a Wonderful Life, good for you, you’ve clearly had a much more cultured childhood, because I didn’t watch that until just last year. But it’s a cozy Christmas movie that celebrates the life of quiet sanctification of a man who lays down his life for his wife, his children, his community of friends, setting aside the path where talent and ambition might have led. It’s the life my dad chose, the life I struggle each day to choose for myself.

That said, our family is the only people I know who have seen/liked this movie. By and large the internet has forgotten and/or actively hates it — the New York Times called it “a piece of moldy wax fruit,” which is a charming but perplexing insult. This 2019 piece argues the movie is making a comeback, but offers absolutely no evidence except that the author likes it.

Family-friendly? We haven’t let our kids see it. There’s a suggestion of an affair, some mild bedroom talk, some obscured nudity, etc.

Where to get it: Rent from Amazon for $3.99

Obscurity level: 8/10 — I guess they made another movie with the name Family Man in 2016 and that makes finding this particular Family Man even harder.

Obscure Advent Recommendation #2: Children of Men

Children of Men - Wikipedia

OK, for our next stop on the Obscure Advent Recommendation Tour, let’s visit a slightly less obscure but definitely controversial pick: Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 movie, Children of Men. Let’s take it as a question and answer:

  1. Haven’t you written about this before?

I thought I had! But now I can’t find anything about it aside from a mention about how haunting it was to recall in the early days of the pandemic. Maybe Instagram?

2. What’s it about?

It’s based on a novel by P.D. James. (Not as good, FIGHT ME.) The premise is that worldwide infertility is creating a world slumping into despair, unrest, and suicide. It’s 2027 (!) and a baby hasn’t been born in eighteen years. When alcoholic everyman Theo Faron is tapped to help on a desperate mission, he’ll brave the dystopian world outside to find hope for himself and the world in what one review aptly calls a Via Dolorosa.

3. That doesn’t sound like an Advent movie.

Ok, friend, that’s not a question. But to answer your non-question, an Anglican priest friend first introduced it to me, actually, as an Advent movie. Even though it’s extremely violent, it has a lot to say about hope and human frailty and the joy a birth can bring. (For instance, this post traces how Theo’s name translates to “God-bearer.) There are a lot of allusions and visual references to the religious themes — though you can also watch it as a film connoisseur (which I am decidedly not) for its famously long and complicated shots.

4. You said it’s violent?

I don’t want to understate this. It’s very hard to watch, but valuable viewing. I mean, I think it still would be. It might be kind of haunting to watch after our pandemic year.

5. How should I pair this?

If you’re watching it with people, be prepared for everyone to sort of stand up dazedly at the end of the viewing and wander away to think through it. Not a cookies-and-cocoa viewing, for sure.

The world of Children of Men
O come, o come Emmanuel, yes?

Family-friendly? ONLY LATE TEENS AND UP. This is outside edge of “hard to watch but worth it” for me. (Though I’m a bit of a weeny.)

Where to get it: It looks like you can rent it on Amazon for $3.99; I got a copy from the library without having to deploy interlibrary loan.

Obscurity level: 6/10 — not on a lot of cozy blogger mom lists of Christmas movies, but plenty of other people agree with the Advent take. (There’s a good review here.)

Obscure Advent Recommendation: The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman

The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman (Laurel-Leaf Books) (9780375895210):  Plummer, Louise: Books - Amazon.com
My elderly copy

Ok, stick with me here — I am about to make a recommendation so obscure, I know it’ll need a little explanation.

So here goes: Louise Plummer’s under-appreciated 1995 YA rom com masterpiece, The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman, is the just-for-fun book you should read this Advent. (Or Christmas. Or whenever.)

Kate Bjorkman is doing just fine. She’s a high school senior and lives with her pleasant, humorous parents in a close-knit neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota. She classifies herself in the second tier of Christmas happiness, even with Coke-bottle glasses and a 6′ frame, but when her big brother arrives home for Christmas unexpectedly with his new wife and old best friend — the one Kate’s had a crush on for years — suddenly she’s in the running for the top tier of Christmas bliss. But does Richard feel the same way?

I’m really picky about rom coms, both on film and in books. The very best ones, in my opinion, have relatable narrators and likable love interests, but, at least as importantly, a rich community of quirky characters. (Think You’ve Got Mail — or even Notting Hill, where, as far as I’m concerned, the side characters are the only thing that save the movie from its tedious leading couple.) Unlikely Romance has just such a cast: a capable but not obnoxious Pinterest mom (before Pinterest was a thing), a sleepy linguist professor father, nuanced friendships and a life-changing teacher who flits through the pages. Characters offer glimmers of backstories and inside jokes and complicated histories that just might make the villain a little less villainous. This community surrounding Kate makes the stakes both higher and lower: an enduring relationship leading to marriage is the unstated goal, but she has a full life even if Richard never declares his love:

“Anyway, the minute I began walking down Folwell Street, I felt glad to be alive. Even before the hero entered, I was pretty happy with my life. I’m not the sulking type. My father, the linguistics professor, had been playing one of the Brandenburg Concertos when I left, and I felt as if the flute music were trapped inside me and that if I opened my mouth, it would trill out into the night air.”

It’s a funny book, with the kind of whip-smart dialogue I love in Love Walked In, and Kate, a very self-aware narrator, often draws cutting comparisons between real-life romance and the stories she read in her friend’s favorite romance novels. But Plummer’s book is also noteworthy for raising serious questions about romantic love, contrasting the will-they-or-won’t-they romance between Kate and Richard with her newlywed brother’s relationship and her parents’ longstanding marriage. Characters cast a critical eye on romantic overtures and grand gestures and instead try to get to the bottom of what makes a real, warm love. It’s a consideration that rewards re-reading at different life stages—I loved it when I first discovered it in my early teens, and I love it still, even when my life stage is much more that of Kate’s parents. I can’t think of an example of another YA book that inquires so seriously into the real work of love — can you?

Family-friendly? I think the book suggests ages 12 and up; I’d skew a bit older for references to virginity, even though the protagonist doesn’t lose hers.

Where to get it: Bookshop.com has it; a lot of local libraries seem to have weeded their copies.

Obscurity level: 9/10; the only people I know who know it are ones I’ve made read it.

The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman : All About Romance %
Bringing the cover into the 21st century?

The Aptness of Advent

This is it. 2020 is the year Advent wins out against the commercial Christmas we’ve all grown up with, at least for this round. How are we going to gather to rock around the Christmas tree? Is it possible for much of anyone to sing without irony this year:

With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings
When friends come to call
It’s the hap- happiest season of all

I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams. That’s for sure and certain.

This is the December we hunker down, wipe our calendars clear of social engagements. We don’t need to dodge the December 5 Christmas party, don’t have to explain to well-meaning coworkers that it’s not Christmas yet. Instead, we have no excuse not to dive deep into what patient waiting means, in both the liturgical and communal senses.

In this way, Catholics and other liturgical Christians have an edge over non-liturgical Christians and secular people going in to this strange, strange December. We have, though we may not personally have plumbed its depths, a rich history of stillness, preparation, and patient suffering in our tradition of Advent.

Without the premature feasts of a normal December party season, can we incorporate fasting into our observance of Advent this year, directing our prayers to any one of the facets of suffering we see more clearly in the pandemic-wracked world this year? Can we use time freed from extracurriculars and commutes to adopt a new prayer practice or reading plan? Without the jangle of “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” trailing us from our last Target run, can we learn the haunting strains of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”?

That doesn’t mean we have to pivot to an Advent all sackcloth and ashes, though. Instead, we can prepare with penitence, yes, but also hope, for the coming of our King. O come, o come Emmanuel. We feel captive this year for sure, trapped in our homes as cold weather and darkness and disease close in. But we must remember that rescue will come, resolving, as best we can, to make [our] house fair as you are able / trim the hearth and set the table.

How do we take the opportunity to critique our usual December flurry, while still preparing steadily for the joy of the 25th? It will take effort and look different for each household. The pensive, hopeful mood of Advent will come easily to many of us this year, but the jubilant mood of Christmastide may require effort without the usual signposts of parties and shopping mall music, family gatherings and perhaps even Mass. Christmas cards will remind those we haven’t seen for months that they are still loved. The intentional introduction of Advent reading, crafting, and baking into our busy rhythm of remote (or home-) schooling will prepare the hearts of our children. The lights we string around our homes will point to the hope in our hearts, glittering through the interminable nights. Can we look to Christians throughout time, from the early church to persecuted Christians in corners of the world today, who cling fast to the truth as the celebrate, hushed and alone, in their own humble way?

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.

Related further reading: The Homely Hours’ exhaustive collection of Advent hymns; me talking about Christmas cards and my past thoughts on Advent.

Commonplace Book, 42

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.


What I’m fixing:

  • Still coasting on the kindness of others.
  • Suet, with the kids. Gross, I️ guess. But it uses up pantry odds and ends and seemed an appropriate activity for St Nicholas Day because, you know, generosity. We used:
    • melted bacon grease, beef fat, coconut oil
    • the last bits of: golden raisins, grits, oatmeal, sunflower seeds and chopped peanuts.
    • I read you could add cayenne to scare off other critters and since a friend recently found an opossum in our trashcan, we added some.

We poured the satisfyingly creepy brew into the silicone snowflake mold I thought would be awesome for compound butter (no) and set it on the porch to cool. Then we froze them, popped the pucks out and put one in the mesh bag you get with oranges or onions. Please don’t tell me if one of these ingredients will decimate the local avian population. The kids are so proud.

Classing up the neighborhood

What I’m reading:

  • 11 Ways to Prepare Your Boy to Be a Great Priest or Dad — found and shared by a friend. #4 and #5 made me laugh out loud.
  • How Chickens and Goats Are Helping to Stop Child Marriage
  • The Bear and the NightingaleI’ve been reading this Roo’s whole life (ha!) and can’t decide if it’s worth it or not. Anyone have an opinion one way or another?
  • A Christmas Carolwhich J is reading aloud to me and the kids after the dinner. I think Pippin is getting maybe 10-20% and Scout none at all, but we are communicating something we love, and it’s time we might otherwise allot to TV or more chores. Instead, we sit around the Advent wreath and then the fireplace and kids snuggle with us and we slow down just a bit, and if that’s all they take away from the reading this year, that still seems like a wonderful start.


In other news, occasionally Roo deigns to open her eyes now
This time last year:

    Commonplace Book, 41

    What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

    I’m soaking up “maternity leave,” which for a homemaker means having my husband home nearly full time and having meals brought almost every evening. We are still schooling and nursing and laundering and all the rest, but the pace is significantly relaxed.

    I am also counting down to Advent and trying to resist getting a tree till Sunday. It’s not easy, especially since Pip remembered about the feast of St Nicholas and started asking daily when he’ll get candy in his shoes.

    What I’m fixing:

    • Basically nothing. People are bringing us meals, which continues to be just the best. For Thanksgiving I️ fixed slow cooker green bean casserole (double the onions, of course), my mom’s chocolate chip pecan pie, and my mother-in-law’s cranberry sauce, and it was such a joy to cook again, no longer heavy-footed and heartburn-ridden, but I’m grateful that my holiday cooking was just a novelty in this season — it’s such a gift to have dinners taken care of instead of frantically attempting to cook with a clingy baby too small to fit in the Ergo.

    Even cuter than the pie maker in Pushing Daisies

    What I’m reading:

    • The Inquisitor’s Tale, by Adam Gidwitz. I️ don’t know if I️ loved it, but it was certainly awfully interesting:

    “Life is a song, composed and sung by God. We are but characters in His song. […] If we could hear our own songs, if we could see God’s creation the way God does, we would know it’s the most beautiful song there is.”

    • Five Little Peppers and How They Grew: aloud to the kiddos. So far I’m meh, but I was looking for something in the spirit of Little Women and Little Men, which Pip loved as audiobooks, and then I found this at a Little Free Library. At least they’re loving siblings, which can sometimes be hard to find, and it’s very anti-materialist (a la Little Women), just as the Christmas greed sets in.
    • How to Pray As a Busy Family: A Beginner’s Guide — mostly stuff I’d intuited but handily collected in one spot.

    This time last year:

    • Anosmia is a thing you probably didn’t know existed. Now you do.

    Commonplace Book, 24

    packing and holiday chores with toddler help

    What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

    What I’m fixing:

    • Cinnamon ornaments: Not for eating, though Scout has tried her darnedest. We made these one afternoon with Pippin while Scout slept off her second cold of the winter. He loves cinnamon, and is an indifferent eater, and I loved that I didn’t have to swoop in and be precise about measurements since these aren’t after all, edible. (Dog biscuits are also great in this regard for toddler/preschool baking projects.)
    • TELL ME YOUR INSTANT POT RECIPES. I just got one, and I have big plans to make four-minute rice this evening, but after that, I’m kind of at a loss. Please advise!

    What I’m reading:

    • Sorting Jane Austen Characters Into Hogwarts Houses: The Definitive Guide: made my nerd heart glow and caused legit LOLs more than once. Seriously, though — Henry Crawford is definitely a Slytherin, right? (Also, we started to talk Anne characters in the comments and “basically Ron in puffed sleeves” will now be my new catchphrase.)
    • Uganda Police Arrest “Separatist” Tribal King’s PM: This was our tribe in Uganda when we lived there in 2008-9, and we saw the king a time or two at the cathedral, flanked by his blockbuster-about-Africa-scary-sunglassed guards. The tribe has a fraught history with the rest of the nation — I try to explain it as sort of the hill people of Uganda, politically alienated, disadvantaged, comparatively fundamentalist and poorly educated, but the situation is further strained by the tribe being split across the border with DRC. I definitely don’t understand everything (much!) about the situation, but it doesn’t sound good.
    • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. I started and quit this once before, but listening to the audiobook is going much better. (J’s read it before, and I refuse to have him read something I haven’t. Except pure philosophy. Also geometry of any kind.) After having just read those monk picture books for co op, it’s fun to continue steeping myself in monastic culture, albeit post apocalyptic rather than medieval:

    Now a Dark Age seemed to be passing. For twelve centuries, a small flame of knowledge had been kept smoldering in the monasteries; only now were there minds ready to be kindled. Long ago, during the last age of reason, certain proud thinkers had claimed that valid knowledge was indestructible—that ideas were deathless and truth immortal. But that was true only in the subtlest sense, the abbot thought, and not superficially true at all. There was objective meaning in the world, to be sure: the nonmoral logos or design of the Creator; but such meanings were God’s and not Man’s, until they found an imperfect incarnation, a dark reflection, within the mind and speech and culture of a given human society, which might ascribe values to the meanings so that they became valid in a human sense within the culture. For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded, and truth and meaning resided, unseen, only in the objective logos of Nature and the ineffable Logos of God. Truth could be crucified; but soon, perhaps, a resurrection

    Sometimes, of course, it feels like we really are in an age that is rejecting reason. (Also, this passage seemed a better choice than my true favorite, “Bless me, Father. I ate a lizard”…!)

    • In This House of Brede. Not very far in, and loving it, despite Godden’s kind of hyphen-y style. More religious life! And just coincidence, since it’s something my parents got me off my Amazon wish list for my birthday. But so far it’s such a gentle, peaceful book for sleepy, firelit Advent evenings.

    Happy Advent, y’all!


    I’ll Be Home for Christmas

    You’re pretty burnt out by this point. You have one or two or five little Christmas elves actively undoing all you clean. Or you’re packing to go out of town and someone’s velvet Christmas dress doesn’t fit, nor will everything cram in the car.

    Either you have your Christmas presents ready to go and are trying desperately to find places to hide them, or you don’t have them yet and don’t know when you’ll shop without the recipients riding around in your shopping cart.

    Maybe your car is accumulating snow melt water on the floorboards as you drive from errand to errand. Maybe it’s not snowing yet, but the 40 degree rain is as bad. Maybe this was supposed to be your quiet, contemplative Advent.

    On the radio, in the car, in the stores, at your kid’s lame Christmas concert, are fairly ridiculous secular Christmas songs. They jar in your head hours afterwards. But some of the lyrics linger:

    “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.

    I’ll be home for Christmas, where the love-light gleams.”

    Why are so many Christmas songs about home? It’s something I noticed while driving around snowy Western Mass a couple Advents ago, morning sick and homesick. Pip was in the backseat, J on a multi-state interview tour, Scout a tiny Charizard in my belly, and everything was in flux. The radio played, I drove to Target for pregnancy-craving beef jerky, I cried. There’s no place like home for the holidays, indeed.

    Maybe you’ve had Christmases like that, where nowhere in particular felt like home, or you longed for Christmases past. (“They’re singing ‘Deck the Halls’ but it’s not like Christmas at all…“).

    And now you have a home where the love-light gleams if only you could find it under half-written Christmas cards and cookie sheets that still need cleaning.

    Advent is about making room, in practical ways, in lofty, interior ways. We give away toys, carve out space for the tree, try to find a little extra time in our day. We make space for the people, like Mary and Joseph, who needed a comfortable place to rest.

    Embrace hygge. Embrace the shabby hospitality Mary extended to shepherds and kings alike. All you can do is what you must, as kindly as possible.

    Advent can’t always be contemplative and slow, or picture-perfect, either, and Christmases can’t always be white. But if we look real hard, I do believe the love-light is there, in our homes, in our churches. And our work, as homemakers, to amplify that light, to keep it alive, is nothing short of the work of story and song.

    “Make your house fair as you are able,
    Trim the hearth and set the table.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the guest, is on the way.”

    Advent: candles, wreathes, take out, pajamas.

    Advent practices that should totally be a thing

    I humbly submit these three weird things as practices you ought to add to your Advent. Because I’m no good at Jesse trees but can just about manage these.

    • Visit your elderly neighbors unannounced. 

    They’re lonely, and they might help you enjoy your kids when you’re worn out, by reminding you that your kids are, in fact, enjoyable people. I’m not someone who feels super comfortable just popping in, but I want to be the kind of person who is. And last winter while we were visiting an elderly wheelchair-bound woman down the street, I accidentally left the Advent candles burning and the house didn’t burn down, so I like to think Jesus tacitly approved.

    • Clean out your car.

    Make straight the paths and vacuum out those Cheerios. Even add a piney air freshener if you’re among the smelling. You’ll likely be caravanning someplace or other this Advent, and you’ll be a lot less cranky if snow melt isn’t puddling on months’ worth of discarded books and jackets and fast food wrappers.

    • Make crayon snowflakes.

    I mean, in general, this is a good season to purge the toys, and stuff in general, but while you’re at it, gather up all your crayon nubs and those awful, waxy crayons you compulsively pocket at restaurants (just me?) and melt them together to make big rainbow crayons your kids can give to friends. It’s baking, without having to fuss at how they’re not measuring carefully enough! It’s cleaning, but with a pretty result! We use this mold, which I bought last year for an unsuccessful experiment in compound butter, and the lowest setting our oven can manage.